Diplomatic dimensions to Pakistan lifting ban on civilian flights over its airspace

Many international airlines had cancelled or curtailed flights to India

Pakistan partially opens airspace for west-bound flights from India Representational Image | Robert Vinod

Perhaps in tune with the 'Kartarpur spirit', Pakistan surprised India and the world by lifting a ban on civilian flights over its airspace on Tuesday morning. This comes just days after the country insisted that India needs to remove its fighter jets from the forward bases for any breakthrough in opening up its airspace, which was shut for civilian air traffic since India's Balakot strikes and subsequent dogfight between fighter jets of both countries in February.

A notice to airmen issued by the Pakistan Civil Aviation Authority, put up on its website early morning on Tuesday, says, “With immediate effect Pakistan airspace is open for all type of civil traffic on published ATS routes.”

The shutdown, enforced immediately after the Balakot strikes on February 26, impacted hundreds of international flights transiting over the Indian sub-continent between Europe and South East Asia, but the worst affected were the flights leaving Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport westward, as well as those from Lucknow and Amritsar. It meant that, instead of flying straight over Pakistan, they had to take a detour toward Gujarat or Mumbai airspace and venture into the Arabian Sea before heading onward—an additional flying time of 70 to 80 minutes.

Many international airlines cancelled or curtailed flights to India—in fact, just on Monday, United Airlines had announced that it will extend its cancellation of Delhi-Newark till October. SpiceJet cancelled its flights to Kabul. Many others had to factor in a refuel stopover due to the extra flying time, like IndiGo's Delhi-Istanbul flight.

India's state carrier was the worst affected of the lot. As per official figures, Air India incurred a loss of Rs 491 crore due to the airspace closure. An additional Rs 60 -70 crore is the estimated loss of other Indian carriers, at a time India's aviation sector is already reeling under the pressure of high oil prices and declining passenger load.

The commercial sense apart, the opening up of the airspace also has diplomatic dimensions. With Prime Minister Imran Khan scheduled to meet President Donald Trump later this week, it sets the stage for Khan as a world leader committed to peace. It also helps that the US State Department designated the Baloch Liberation Army on Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) list. The BLA is a separatist group that has chosen to attack CPEC targets. It was implicated in the attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi last year.

Closer home, this move comes a day after the second Kartarpur Corridor meeting, hinting at a possible thaw between the two countries.